Life Is Hard

Recently, I’ve read a couple of books about how you can take greater control of your life, particularly your time and your health. But there are lots of things in life you just can’t control. We all face adversity and tragedy. We all suffer.

In Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way, Kieran Setiya, a professor of philosophy at MIT, explores life’s hardships from a philosophical perspective.

Setiya says that instead of pretending hardship doesn’t exist, or repeating empty reassurances like, “it’ll be OK,” or viewing all suffering as “part of God’s plan” (if you believe in a god or gods – I don’t), Setiya argues that we should study adversity, pay attention to it.

Written during the Covid-19 pandemic, the book is essentially a deep examination of the contents of Pandora’s Box with chapters on sickness, grief, loneliness, failure and other ills, and a final chapter on hope.

Setiya’s purpose is to help us understand and deal with hardship so we can live our lives well.

“To live well in the sense that animates this book is to cope with the ways in which life is hard while finding enough in one’s life worth wanting.” [p. 8]

Living well is different than simply being happy. Going a step further, Setiya says that we can’t live well through self-interest alone. Honest reflection about the hardships we experience should lead us to have concern and compassion for others. Justice is therefore central to living well.

Cover of Life Is Hard showing a hummingbird hovering near a thistle.

Life Is Hard:
How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way
By Kieran Setiya
Riverhead Books, New York, 2022

Life Is Hard is part personal essay, part history of philosophy and part philosophical reasoning. You won’t find tips or “that one weird trick” to living well. Setiya calls his book a “map with which to navigate rough terrain.” If so, it’s a map that doesn’t give you clear directions, though it might change your perspective.

I say “might” because I found this a difficult book. It’s intended for a general audience but I thought Setiya’s writing was difficult to follow and unconvincing in places. Several times I felt like abandoning it unfinished. I persisted but I’d say the book is uneven. Some of the chapters were insightful and thought-provoking, others seemed aimless.  

I though the chapter on failure was very good. Setiya calls attention to a modern tendency to see our lives as a story, a linear narrative with a beginning, a climax and an ending. He warns that this sets us up for failure. It’s not just that we might fail at a particular project or relationship, but we might come to see our entice lives as a failure. He cautions us to avoid tying our identities too closely to one narrative.

“A life can’t really succeed or fail at all; it can only be lived.” [p. 100]

In the US, capitalism, individualism and the idea of personal responsibility also drive us to evaluate ourselves and others as successes or failures, or worse yet as winners and losers. Witness the countless stories of the so-called “self-made man” (and it’s always a man) who lifts himself from humble beginnings to staggering wealth. Of course, we rarely consider all the people who helped along the way, or the privileges and advantages he might, perhaps unknowingly, have benefited from.

In this individualistic way of thinking, failure then becomes a character flaw, the result of a lack of discipline or perseverance, ignoring structural problems like racism, misogyny or other barriers.

(We see the same cruel illogic in the debate over health care in the US where sickness, like poverty, is seen by many as a character flaw.)

I think Setiya objects so strongly to this kind of thinking because it absolves us of the responsibility for helping each other. It absolves us, in other words, of the obligation to seek justice.

Setiya attaches so much importance to justice as a part of living well, it’s a shame the chapter on injustice was disappointing,

I didn’t need much convincing that there are valid reasons why we should be concerned for the welfare of others. I liked how he links justice with love:

“Justice and love are not two unrelated virtues – like truth and beauty – but different aspects of one good: the lower bound of what we owe to one another and the limit at which our lives converge.” [p. 130]

And Setiya quite rightly notes there is so much injustice in the world that it’s easy to become paralyzed trying to figure out what to do, how much time to spend, and what actions would make a difference. But in this chapter his map of rough terrain leads us nowhere. Instead, we get about 35 pages of guilt-ridden meandering. About all he can suggest is to join with others in collective action and not worry about how much impact we’re having – even a small amount is better than none. Thanks.

Fortunately, the last chapter, the one about hope, is a good one. Setiya describes hope as a prerequisite for action, but not enough to cause action by itself. I particularly liked this:

“To hope well is to be realistic about probabilities, not to succumb to wishful thinking or be cowed by fear; it is to hold possibilities open when you should. The point of clinging to possibility is not to feel good – hope may be more painful than despair – but to keep the flicker of potential agency alive.”  [p. 178]

One thing I found missing from Setiya’s philosophical approach is an evolutionary perspective. OK, he is a philosopher after all. Still, I find evolution a powerful framework for understanding the world. For example, in the chapter on loneliness he doesn’t really take into account that we’re hard-wired by evolution for membership in small groups and that in prehistoric times separation from the group could literally be a death sentence. This is a fundamental part of why loneliness is such a painful experience.

Similarly, in the chapter on failure, he doesn’t discuss the idea that failure can contribute to our learning and growth as individuals and as societies.

I wish I could say I found this book more rewarding. Yet despite mixed feelings, Life is Hard did give me a lot to think about, especially the idea that justice and compassion for self and for others are key ingredients for living well.

Thanks for reading.

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3 Responses to Life Is Hard

  1. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve put a hold at the library on “Life is hard.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The ideas you share from this book sound very intriguing. Too bad the author didn’t pull his ideas together in a more cohesive way. It sounds like a book I might pick and choose my way through.
    I appreciate the caution to avoid tying our identities to one narrative.
    “A life can’t really succeed or fail at all; it can only be lived.”

    Liked by 1 person

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